Events

Why Economic Interests Determine Modern Rural Politics

Spring 2017 History Colloquium Series

In 1968, Richard Nixon gave a speech in Des Moines that, among other things, underscored the importance the Republican Party placed on carrying Iowa (along with the rest of the blue-turned Midwest) in a post-Barry Goldwater political landscape. As MU Postdoctoral Fellow in History Keith Orejel noted in introducing his March 10 presentation for the Kinder Institute’s Friday Colloquium Series, not only did Nixon’s speech acknowledge the economic decimation that the region’s agricultural industry had experienced in the years since World War II. When analyzed with a backward glance, its content also reveals a fundamental contemporary misconception about small-town, heartland politics. More specifically, little (if any) mention was made in Nixon’s speech of the “guns and Bible” cultural politics that many have come to associate with the region in the wake of Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas? Instead, with promises of better schools and roads and more extensive public utilities—promises, that is, of continued government investment in infrastructure that would continue to catalyze industrial growth in the region—Nixon made an appeal to Midwestern economic rebirth that still very much resonates today.

As Prof. Orejel would go on to explain, the origins of Nixon’s appeal can be traced back to a grassroots political movement started by small-town business leaders in the 1950s that aimed to reconstruct the rural economy—to solve the problems of outmigration and agricultural unemployment—by courting urban factories to relocate to the heartland. In unpacking this thesis, Prof. Orejel focused on Centerville, Iowa’s Robert K. Beck, a newspaperman-turned pro-industrial development drum banger-turned gubernatorial hopeful. Centerville’s narrative, he explained, was an all too familiar one in the 1940s-1950s Midwestern farm belt: when increased production failed to provide a solution to the structural transformation of the agricultural industry, small farmers sold out to their larger, technologically-endowed competition, and as a result, Centerville saw its population decrease by nearly 50%.

From the ashes, though, was born Beck & Co.’s Iowa Development Commission (IDC) and its aggressive campaign to attract capital investment in the region through a self-described “middle of the road” platform of amenities that blended the pro-business “best” of New Deal liberalism and post-WW II conservatism: from the right, anti-union attitudes, low corporate taxes, and expensive subsidies; and from the left, an FDR-like commitment to liberal ideas about government spending on internal improvement. To some degree, the IDC’s efforts paid off, with rural industrial growth far outpacing urban industrial growth during the 1960s and 1970s and population in the area beginning to rebound as a result of new economic opportunities. And while Beck’s own run at the governor’s seat came up short, Prof. Orejel concluded by noting how his “better times ahead” rhetoric not only laid out the path that Nixon would follow to victory in 1968 but also found its way into the most recent presidential election in the form of Trump’s promises to restore America’s manufacturing economy, in urban and rural areas alike, after its precipitous decline during the first decade of the new millennium.

Keith Orejel received his PhD in American History from Columbia University, where his dissertation, “Factories in the Fallows: The Political Economy of America’s Rural Heartland” explored the post-WW II relationship between capitalist development and political mobilization in rural and small-town communities.